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Keyword research or intent research: What is the future of keywords in SEO?


Ask most SEO professionals what is the most important and fundamental thing in search engine optimization, and most would say that it is “keyword research and optimization.”

Keywords have been a crucial pillar in the SEO world for decades now. It is, after all, the keywords that online searchers use in their search queries. And it is keywords that search engine crawlers find in different web pages across the internet to shortlist and display the relevant results on the search engine results pages (SERPs).

However, the role of keywords is going through a bit of an evolution. Will keywords have the same role and impact in 2020 and beyond? Or will there be changes in how SEOs research, use, and optimize keywords?

Let’s discuss what the future holds for keyword research, selection, and optimization.

Keyword research vs. Intent research

According to some industry experts, keywords and keyword research should no longer be the primary focus of SEOs. Instead, SEO professionals should switch from keyword research to intent research.

This is what Frédéric Dubut, Senior Program Manager Lead at Bing, suggested in a video recorded during SMX East last year.

This is what he said:

“If you look at 2018, 2019, there’s lots of evolution in the field of deep learning [and] natural language processing. Google announced recently they integrated their BERT language model in search results. And what that means for everyone is search engines are shifting from keywords to intent at an accelerating pace.” 

“What we’re looking forward to in 2020 is that search engines are going to be primarily intent-based, so we’ll understand the core intent better. We’ll understand what the documents mean better, and we’ll be able to do better matches,” He further added.

However, Google’s John Mueller does not completely agree with this suggestion. John believes that keywords still have their importance and will continue to play a role in the near future.

However, at the same time, John also acknowledges the growing influence of natural language processing and a deeper understanding of search engines that goes beyond keywords.

He said, “There’s probably always gonna be a little bit of room for keyword research because you’re kind of providing those words to users. And even if [the] search engines are trying to understand more than just those words, showing specific words to users can make it a little bit easier for them to understand what your pages are about and can sometimes drive a little bit of that conversion process.”

The growing importance of semantic search

Over the past few years, semantic search has been gaining a lot of traction. As search engines like Google continue to become smarter and more intelligent, they rely less and less on specific keywords and keyword phrases to find a web page to rank in the SERPs.

As you may know, Google has also recently introduced Google BERT, which is going to accelerate this advancement of machine learning, natural language processing (NLP), artificial intelligence (AI).

This is how Google explains BERT.

“Unlike recent language representation models, BERT is designed to pre-train deep bidirectional representations from unlabeled text by jointly conditioning on both left and right context in all layers. 

As a result, the pre-trained BERT model can be fine-tuned with just one additional output layer to create state-of-the-art models for a wide range of tasks, such as question answering and language inference, without substantial task-specific architecture modifications.”

In simpler words, Google is now in a significantly better position to understand a search query and display relevant results in the SERPs — even if those pages are not optimized for the query’s main keywords.

Here is an example of more relevant search results after Google BERT.
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Having said that, Google has been a very intelligent search engine even before the formal introduction of Google BERT.

Here is an example (from a pre-Google-BERT era) in which Google successfully identifies and ranks web pages at the top of the SERPs even if those pages do not use the main keyword of the query.

The first and third page on the SERP does not use the keyword ‘infant’ even once, but they still clearly outranking the pages that used that keyword multiple times.

This shows that, at least to a certain extent, Google does not really rely on specific keywords and their usage on a web page. If Google thinks that a web page has more relevant content and answers the searcher’s query in a better way, it will rank it on the top of the SERPs — regardless if it uses the main keyword or not.

4 tips for content marketers

For content creators and SEO professionals who like to rely heavily on keywords and focus on maintaining a certain keyword density, this development might complicate things. 

But the world of SEO and keyword optimization is clearly changing, and so should you.

Here are five tips to help content marketers and SEOs adjust in this new world of intelligent and AI-powered search engines that don’t solely rely on keywords.

1. Research keywords

Yes, you should still spend time on researching keywords. While it seems that the search engines are becoming smarter, they still use keywords to a certain extent.

Most of your focus should be on user intent. However, you can’t completely ignore keywords as of yet.

2. Focus on user intent

That’s the main thing. Whether you use certain keywords or not, it is extremely important that you focus on user intent.

Understand your audience, identify their problems, and then try to present the most relevant and informative solutions to them through your content.

We recommend creating detailed buyer personas to fully understand your audience, their demographics, and preferences. You can also use third-party research tools to find more information about your audience, e.g., Alexa and Facebook Audience Insights.

Lastly, if you have a reasonable amount of traffic on your website, you can also learn more about your audience with Google Analytics Audience reports.

3. Create helpful and informative content

As we discussed earlier, if your content is of exceptional quality, using a specific keyword phrase or maintaining a certain keyword density won’t matter as much.

Therefore, your biggest focus should be on producing helpful, informative, and engaging content for your website visitors. 

Also, refer to Google’s webmaster quality guidelines for more guidance on how to create the best user experience for your website visitors.

4. Pay more attention to LSI keywords

If Google is focusing more on the overall context of a web page, you can get ranked by using more LSI keywords naturally. 

LSI keywords help add more context to a web page. With more context and a deeper understanding of your content, Google is more likely to present your web pages to relevant audiences and online searchers.

Learn more about LSI keywords.

The takeaway

While keywords have been a fundamental pillar of search engine optimization, that may no longer be the case. 

Instead of using specific keywords and including them a certain amount of times on your web page, your focus should be on understanding the intent of the user’s search queries and creating informative and interesting content that helps them.

Because of how search engines are evolving and getting smarter, they would still be able to find your content and rank them for the right queries, most of the time.



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